Jae-Yeon Yoo ’18 understands better than most what it means to care for someone. During her gap year she worked in a residential community for people with special needs located in Gorey, Ireland—about two hours south of Dublin.

Yoo worked with an international organization named Camphill Communities to assist 25 members of the residential community, which is divided into small houses. She lived in a house with a host mother and four people with special needs.

Each day, Yoo would wake up and either milk the community’s farm animals, or shower one of the members. Her house family would then cook, eat and clean up breakfast together. After breakfast, everyone would go off to workshops—including pottery, weaving and other activities designed to have the community create something together. 

In the morning, Yoo would work in the weavery, and in the afternoon, she would clean with the help of some special needs members of the community.

“Because it’s an entirely self-functioning community, you don’t have people from the outside, like our housekeepers, that come in and do it,” said Yoo. “I got to be really good friends with our vacuum and toilet cleaner.” 

Yoo took valuable lessons away from her gap year, but the transition to Bowdoin, and back to living only for herself, has presented challenges. 

“I think the main thing [the gap year] helped me to realize is how valuable it is to care for another person and to be fully responsible for someone else,” she said. “I had four people who were getting me up in the morning, and now I only have to be responsible for myself. That’s really relieving in the beginning but at the same time you feel a little bit empty. I’m still dealing with that.”

Yoo’s experience was also meaningful as it gave her a chance to get to know socially marginalized people. 

“I think people should realize that special needs people really aren’t very different from us,” she said. “People, when they hear about my gap year, always say, ‘oh my god, you’re such a good person, that’s amazing,’ but I think I gained more from the experience than what I was able to give them. I discovered a lot about myself.”

Yoo found through working with the other residents of the community that the similarities between everyone living there outweighed the differences. She said that recontextualizing what seems like odd behavior in terms of ones own life can help that understanding. 

Yoo pointed out that we all desire a certain order in our lives, and while the reaction of a severely autistic person to a change in routine might be different from others, the root cause, a need for stability, is shared. 

“If you think about it in those terms it’s really important that they’re not that different,” she said. “I think a lot of people forget that when they hear about my experience. I am far from being an angel.”

Yoo said she has enjoyed returning to her studies after taking a year off from academics. However, she did learn to drink beer with the correct Irish technique.

“I didn’t do any studying unless you count learning how to drink Guinness,” she said. “That was a serious lesson.”